Defending Progressivism Conference

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On the 29th of April in the famed Conway Hall in London, a daylong -conference entitled Defending Progressivism took place, an unprecedented event organised by both Culture Project and Conatus News which saw a series of panel discussions and talks featuring renowned activists dissecting the theme of defending social-progressivism.

By Sarah Mills

The Event:

The event began with Conatus News editor-in-chief, Benjamin David, who discussed the significance of progressivism. Presenting a worldview substantiated by a forward-thinking approach with a strong commitment to human-rights, Benjamin spoke at length about his work in Conatus News – a progressive-thinking news website. Benjamin also emphasised the importance of progressive principles in winning the culture-war and, to this aim, delineated why the conference was so important for forging bonds between progressives and related groups.

Proceeding Benjamin’s introduction was a speech by Houzan Mahmoud, co-founder of Culture Project, who, drawing on her work in her organisation, underscored the importance of feminism, secularism, and art in enacting social progressive change. Speaking about her longstanding work as a feminist campaigner, work most lucidly incarnated in her activism assisting people in her native Kurdistan,

Houzan spoke of the importance of feminism, secularism and art in empowering and mobilising some of the most disadvantaged people, especially people in the Middle East. Closing her speech, Houzan hoped that new bonds would be forged and, in speedy fashion and in stalwart vision, a progressive community would follow commensurate with Culture Project’s close working relationship with Conatus News.
The opening panel, Progressivism Today, featuring feminist Heather Brunskell-Evans (academic and feminist), AC Grayling (philosopher and author), Peter Tatchell (human-rights campaigner), Claire Fox (writer and director), and Terry Sanderson (president of the National Secular Society) presented emotive discussions on Brexit, Donald Trump, and the British left movement. In an exchange that saw some of the most popular political issues construed, the topic of Britain’s exit from the European Union was undoubtedly the focal point of the panel – seeing Fox (a supporter of the ‘leave’ campaign) and Grayling (a supporter of the ‘remain’ campaign) lock horns. “Every liberal ideal is under threat from Brexit,” said Grayling, slamming the ‘Leave’ move as a barrier to progressive values. Fox rebutted, calling Brexit a “progressive move”, indeed, one of the “great progressive ideas of our time”.

With the opening panel wrapped up, existential coach Phil Pearl took the stage, who, skilfully fusing existential insights with personal anecdote, spoke at length on The madness of Happiness. Presenting a series of facts about the state of the UK’s mental health, Pearl made a passionate plea to eschew our stigmas surrounding mental health and take stock in a new-fangled acceptance of who we are. In no uncertain terms, he made clear his disdain for the ‘label’ culture that reduces people into conditions through self-diagnosis and an exaggeration of the ills of mental distress. Anxiety, he said, is our friend. It is a sign that we need to address something.

After lunch self-taught Kurdish musician Tara Jeff performed a collection of songs with her harp, music which, clearly influenced by Kurdistan’s rich musical history, infused the event with an aesthetic that left the crowd roused for the next panel.

The event next saw the Feminist Mobilisation panel feat Rahila Gupta (journalist and writer), Sara Khan (author and co-founder of Inspire), Sadia Hameed (Council of Ex-Muslims of Britain), and Gita Sahgal (writer and journalist) delineate and debate feminist mobilisation. Much the same as the opening panel, this one saw many weighty issues discussed, in particular the rise of religious extremism and the far-reaching dangers it poses to feminism.

After the interim, another panel took the stage, this time focussing on Refugee Rights, Racism and the Far Right. Bob Churchill (IHEU), Yanroj Yilmaz Keles (Research Fellow at Middlesex University), Anna Zobnina (ENOMW), and Melanie Gingell (Barrister and Human Rights Activist) highlighted the securitisation of the refugee crisis as well as the crisis of borders. Moreover the panellists spoke about the plight that Bangladeshi bloggers have faced this past decade. Furthermore, the panel gave emphasis to the growing trend of the far-right which, on the grounds that the trend problematises the resettlement of refugees, needed a consolidated countermovement to challenge it.

The final panel, Activism: What Works, featuring Chris Moos (secularist activist), Terri Murray (academic theologian), Donya Taher (student and human-rights activist), Lisa-Marie Taylor (Feminist and Activist), Hibo Wardere (author and human-rights campaigner), and chaired by Yasmin Rehman (human-rights campaigner) talked about some of the most consequential challenges to activism. Drawing on their challenges and successes, the panel explicated the importance of forgoing typical approaches to human-rights activism by instead adopting radical approaches, especially as seen in radical feminist movements, as well as drawing on some of the central tenets of classical liberalism.

My thoughts:

“Defending Progressivism” was, in my opinion, a call to take back the words ‘progress’ and ‘liberal.’ Healthy, lively debate and constructive exchange were the salient features of Saturday’s conference. What struck me as I listened was the sense of disillusionment with the state of the left today. The panellists hardly agreed with each other over every matter – that was the beauty of the debate that, while animated at times, never descended into disrespect – but there was a general consensus that the left was abandoning its ideals. Peter Tatchell said, “We need to grow a progressive alliance that goes beyond traditional left orthodoxy”. Terry Sanderson referenced the rise of emotional and personality politics. Heather Brunskell-Evans said she had “abandoned the left” and that what was currently happening with it was representative of a deep ‘malaise’ in society. Houzan Mahmoud appealed to what seems, at the moment, one of the most pressing concerns for the left: “We need to defend critical debate”. Claire Fox, author of I Find That Offensive!, lamented the state of free speech on campuses and berated those students who, under the protection of safe spaces, hide from ideas and arguments. She made the rousing call to engage with ideas as much as possible, even those we find unpalatable. “Free speech is content neutral,” as was said during the conference. Divide and conquer and silence are the tactics employed to destroy liberalism.

I wholeheartedly put my name in with the appeal to take back the word ‘progressivism.’ Human rights should not be a partisan bone of contention in our increasingly divided politics. Chris Moos, councillor for the National Secular Society and student activist, referenced the stereotype that science and progressivism are of European origin, saying that to make this assertion is harmful and historically inaccurate. I followed a common thread throughout the day’s discussions and noted the outstanding commitment to universality, to humanity. The focus was on our unifying factors, those that make us part of an extended human family. This idea featured especially in the conversation concerning refugees. No borders may be politically idealistic, but why should we limit ourselves to dreaming of anything but a utopia of enlightened persons who share ideals that form the basis of peace and progress? Progress is not the exclusive domain of any one race, though corruption and instability have made it seem that some are inherently better than others. Perhaps most symbolic of our shared passion for life and happiness was Kurdish musician Tara Jeff’s moving harp performance between the morning and afternoon sessions of the conference. This, in my opinion, is the foundation of progress: an appreciation for things that allow us to thrive, never at the expense of another human- art, discovery, knowledge, empathy, and passion for improvement.